Beijing used to have many such intimate neighborhoods brimming with siheyuans, or courtyard mansions, that were eventually partitioned into apartments for the proletariat. Today, skyscrapers sprout all over the city like weeds, and beltways proliferate like age rings, plowing over these traditional communities. But in the heart of the central Gulou area, an enclave of sloping eaves and winding hutongs has escaped the ubiquitous bulldozers, defying the Chinese capital’s growth spurt.
That these hutongs have maintained their ancient anatomy doesn’t mean that the area is ossified in the past, however. Following a fortuitous tip from a Shanghai fashionista, I find the avant-garde boutique Wuhao, tucked inside a series of stately courtyards. Its red door is unmarked except for a bilingual sign that reads, in English, “Politely refuse visiting, please don’t disturb.”
I knock anyway, with the shameless chutzpah that comes from being a tourist. Soon, an elegantly shawled employee is escorting me around the grounds, explaining in French-scented English that China’s last empress once lived in the compound. Moving through the villa, which was restored in 2010 and now houses the boutique, I take in the contemporary furniture, the couture and the accessories by Chinese and overseas designers that Empress Wanrong certainly never owned.
A hand-sized ceramic skull wearing a gold crown adorns a bookshelf, while a wheeled wooden crate has been transformed into a closet full of bright dresses. Beneath a canopy of lush bamboo foliage stands a bench of aerodynamic design. Conspicuously missing are price tags — so presumed is the limitless wealth of the clients, most of whom are members of the growing Chinese upper middle class.
But I’m not here for the high fashion or the one-of-a-kind jewelry. In this city of superlatives, discovering this quiet reinvention is my real reward.
As soon as the unmarked gate spits me back out into the hutong, I wonder whether Wuhao was just a chimera cooked up by a combination of jet lag and toxic smog. A pajama-clad woman walks past, dragging her feet, clad in plastic slippers, and adroitly maneuvering a toothpick in her mouth. A few steps away, two hunks of raw meat hang from the rusty bars of a window. The wild juxtaposition heightens my anticipation for other surprises. After all, isn’t the real allure of travel the possibility of being transported to an unexpected universe at a moment’s notice?